Mummies, Mermaids & Monsters at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka

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Winged horses. Blood-sucking fiends. Mysterious movements in the water, or footsteps in the forest during a full moon. No matter what culture you come from, there are stories about the unexplained, and about the creatures that live beyond what we know is real. At Japan’s National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, you can learn about some of these creatures, as well as the culture who drew, carved and painted images of their exploits. 

Regnum Imaginarium - Realm of the Marvelous and Uncanny - Japan National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka

Devil mask Long-necked archangel National Museum of Ethnology Photo by Daido Yukiyo

The Regnum Imaginarium Exhibit

The National Ethnology Museum in Osaka Japan is a fantastic place to give kids a taste of culture from around the world. One of Japan’s top museums, it has exhibits that cover the art, clothing, and music of regions o every continent. They also regularly host traveling exhibits, and my favorite thus far is called “Regnum Imaginarium: Realm of the Marvelous and Uncanny.”

Here is where you’ll see examples of hundreds of magnificent creatures as depicted by local artisans in Cameroon, Iran, Greenland, Japan, and many other countries. I wrote about the exhibit for my column in the Japan Times. An excerpt is below, as well as a link to the entire column on the Japan Times website (image credits at the end).

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Learn about Them

Devils and unicorns. Werewolves and giants. The world is full of stories about creatures that defy our laws of nature. Fantastic beasts like these come in countless shapes and sizes, yet we find similarities in tales of such creatures everywhere.

For example, both dragon and mermaid imagery are found worldwide. They may take different forms, but the relative characteristics remain unchanged. Why is this? How could disparate, ancient people dream up similar mythical animals? And when one region has its own unique beast, what does that say about the culture that created it? These were just a few of the questions I asked myself at “Regnum Imaginarium: Realm of the Marvelous and Uncanny,” the current exhibition at Osaka’s National Museum of Ethnology.

March of the Creatures - Igarashi Daisuke 2019

The Culture & Craft of Monsters

At “Regnum Imaginarium,” you are invited to take a peek into otherworldly territories where gryphons and shapeshifters walk freely. Divided into two main parts — Biota of the Imaginary and Cultural History of the Imaginary — it shows how different societies interpreted the creatures from today’s fairy tales, literature, movies and beyond. It’s a fun exhibition for any kid interested in the history, culture, and craft of monsters.

Near the beginning of “Regnum Imaginarium,” you encounter a map indicating places where mermaids or mermaid-like beings are part of local lore. Many of us grew up with the same image of a mermaid: the top half of woman fused to the shimmering lower half of a fish. However, this is not the only version. In the Solomon Islands, they can be depicted as a male body with the head of a fish, while both Iran and Italy have been illustrated as a fish with human faces. Then from West Africa, there is the “Fish-Legged King of Benin.” There is even video of a traditional dance performance of Sovan Macha, the golden mermaid from Cambodian folktales. Made mostly from wood, stone, and ink, these representations of the mermaid accompany the map showing where they originated.

Horns, Fins, and Limbs

Mermaids are just the first of many chimeral creatures on display at “Regnum Imaginarium.” As you move through the exhibit, you’ll also encounter zombies, thunderbirds and humanoid plants. In the section called Horned Beings, the text on one display panel asks the simple questions:” Why horns? Why are devils, demons and other creatures of great evil and power depicted with features best-known on herbivores like deer or cattle?”

Stop for a moment and think about that. Can you name any dangerous predators with horns? There are very few, and most are negligible to humans.

Anthropologists have their theories, but I won’t give it away because that’s part of what makes this exhibition fun for children of all ages…

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Regnum Imaginarium Collage National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka

Image Credits:

  1. Mermaid Collection via Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen
  2. Devil Mask (Mexico) via National Museum of Ethnology Photo by Daido Yukiyo
  3. Long-Necked Archangel (Peru) via National Museum of Ethnology Photo by Daido Yukiyo
  4. March of the Creatures (detail) by Igarashi Daisuke 2019
  5. Devil Mask (Mexico) via National Museum of Ethnology Photo by Daido Yukiyo 
  6. Mermaid Collection via Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen
  7. March of the Creatures (detail) by Igarashi Daisuke 2019
  8. Long-Necked Archangel (Peru) via National Museum of Ethnology Photo by Daido Yukiyo

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